Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems

777 Bison Ranch

Mimi HillenbrandMore than 40 years ago, when the owner of 777 Bison Ranch(opens in new window) Mimi Hillenbrand was a child, her father and uncles bought a ranch in southwestern South Dakota and 10 years later decided to raise bison on it. Their property has grown over the years and currently is comprised of almost 30,000 acres of mixed, shortgrass prairie. Much of the land had been continuously grazed with cattle and was in poor condition at the time of purchase. Some was previously farmed and planted with crested wheat and smooth brome and some pastures were chiseled to enhance water infiltration and stimulate a seed bank response of blue grama and buffalo grass. They decided to switch to Holistic Management in order to restore the land in the early 1980’s not long after they made the choice to raise bison instead of cattle.

Mimi describes the terrible winter when they made the decision: “Right during the calving season we had a horrible blizzard and every single cow in the cattle herd was calving in the blizzard. And they were pulling them and bringing them in and then as soon as that blizzard stopped, all these bison that we had just got calved when the sun was out, and it made us re-evaluate what we were doing.” They thought about raising only bison and that’s when they first met Alan Savory. “He just resonated with us 120%! We switched over to bison, switched to Holistic Management(opens in new window), and we haven’t looked back. Both things have been a wonderful journey.”

Investing for the Journey

Choosing Holistic Management often means investing in paddocks to keep the livestock bunched together in one section of a pasture at a time while allowing the grass in grazed sections to rest and recover. Choosing to work with bison in this way requires a bigger investment.

“Infrastructure for bison needs to be a lot beefier than for cattle. I’ve watched so many of my neighbors run cattle on three or four strand barbed wire fences that are not in the best condition but it holds cattle. But for bison we started out with a six strand barbed wire. We had to redo our corrals. We use guard rail. Our chutes are fortified steel. It takes money to have a really good infrastructure, especially a working facility. If you’re going to get into bison though, the most important thing you can have is a really good handling facility and corral system. For fencing I know a lot of people who run bison with electric fence. It’s never worked for us but if they start with calves and train them young, as calves, to the electric fence it seems to work really well for people. For some of our high pressure areas we’ve been switching over to high tensile woven wire and that has been a wonderful investment for us also.”

Participating in Research

At the time the ranch got involved with Holistic Management, Mimi says it was very new and innovative. When she took Range Management classes at the University of Montana a few years later she was frustrated that her professor kept saying that HM would never work. “But we’ve only been doing this a little bit and it IS working! We’ve seen changes. So I was never deterred, even if the professors were like ‘humph!’”

Mimi feels that she’s been doing research on the land for 30 years. The HM approach requires continually monitoring and creating grazing plans that are updated based on what was done previously and how it’s working in whatever conditions are present now, so adjustments can be made as needed. However, when a friend told her about Applied Ecological Services who could do a comprehensive study on the overall health of her land, including carbon sequestration, she jumped at the opportunity. “It was a really big investment for me, but I wanted to know that what I’ve been doing for over 30 years really does what it [Holistic Management] says it’s doing. I wanted an overall health report on the state of the land and everything came back saying exactly what Holistic Management preaches! You will have better water infiltration, you will have better diversity, you can build back topsoil, you can sequester more carbon. And everything that I was interested in is happening! Super exciting.”

The study that was published in the journal “Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment” in July 2019(opens in new window) studied the impacts of holistic adaptive managed grazing (AMP) with bison compared to light continuous grazing (LCG) and heavy continuous grazing (HCG) with cattle on her neighbors’ properties with similar soil and climate conditions. In all cases the management practices had been constant for more than a decade. The plan on the 777 Bison Ranch, however, is much more intensive than that used on the continuously grazed ranches who tend to graze the entire growing season without modifying stocking rates unless a drought or some other major problem arises.

By contrast, the 777 Bison Ranch uses 36 paddocks that are monitored daily along with the animals and the length of grazing and recovery periods are adjusted throughout the year according to current conditions. Changing forage growth rates is one of the key factors used to make decisions. The manager typically uses two different grazing plans: one for the grass growing season (mid-March to mid-October) and one for the non-growing season (mid-October to mid-March). Additionally, a drought plan is created every year along with the growing season plan. This plan is put into place by the June 15th herd stocking decision deadline if conditions seem to indicate drought. During the growing season the smaller pastures are grazed for 1 to 2 days, the larger ones for 1 or 2 weeks. Recovery periods average 75 days during the growing season with a minimum of 45 days, and a maximum of 120 days in the non-growing season.

Researchers (Mimi Hillenbrand, Ry Thompson, Fugui Wang, Steve Apfelbaum, and Richard Teague) looked at six parameters of ecosystem health: soil carbon stocks; soil organic carbon accrual rates; water infiltration rates; plant diversity; plant biomass; and forage quality. Results of the study were quite significant. AMP grazing showed the following positive results compared to either level of continuous grazing: 

  • increased fine litter cover
  • improved water infiltration
  • two to three times the available forage biomass
  • improved plant composition
  • decrease in invasive plants
  • decrease in bare ground
  • soil carbon stocks increased (but not in all soils)

As might be expected, the differences were greatest between AMP and HCG management systems, with LCG falling somewhere in between. Total carbon stocks were not different between the AMP and LCG grazing strategies but both had higher values across all soils than HCG. Since it has been five years since the initial research was done, Mimi Hillenbrand plans to do some retesting related to carbon sequestration to see if choices the ranch has made since then will net improved results.

mother and child bison running together

Any Challenges?

“There’s always challenges,” Mimi says. “I’d rather talk about successes because those were challenges at one time. One was we used to have springs that would only run seasonally, and springs are very important to fill stock dams and to help with the ecology out there—they’re vital! And by planning our grazing and allowing adequate recovery time, some of those springs now run year round. Even during some of these dry years! It’s something I just talked about with someone from the Nature Conservancy. We have one place called “Dry Creek”—for a reason. But when it hits our land, every year it grows and now it holds water all year! And so there’s a whole segment of it, probably almost a mile or so, that holds water. That water is infiltrating, it’s percolating, and it’s just amazing to see. I remember when I was a kid that I could take four-wheelers across Dry Creek in some areas, and now it’s holding water and there are actually minnows in it. Super exciting!”

Water is always challenging, and 777 Bison Ranch is always working on ways to improve their infiltration even more because the soil they have had to work with was so poor. But management is what will solve that and, for Mimi, that means hiring the right people.

“It’s getting people who buy into your vision, who embrace it and are passionate about it. It’s taken awhile but I have the most amazing team and we work really well together. Not afraid to say when we’re wrong or point a finger at something we need to do different. We’re willing to work with each other and they love it! It taken me awhile to get them on board but you can’t turn them back now. The biggest challenge is getting the right people and getting them in the right position and letting them do what they do best. Or letting them find what they really want to do. The youngest guy I have is 24, a hired man, and finally he said ‘You know what? I love this. I did all of the Holistic Management classes. Can I be the herdsman?’ Absolutely! He found his niche. Everybody finds their niche. And then if they come to you asking to be able to do this job, then you can’t stop ‘em!”

Advice to Beginners

“When it comes to young people, they have so many challenges, especially if they weren’t born into a ranching family. The biggest question I get is ‘how do I get land?’ First of all, I always say: don’t ever let anybody tell you that you can’t live your dream and make it happen. Keep those passionate fires going. There’s always ways to get land. You can lease land. You can find older couples who want to live on the land but don’t have anybody who wants to take care of it and work it. I know several people who have taken care of land for older people and eventually that land is left to them and they’re allowed to work it the way they want to.

“Don’t ever be afraid to make mistakes. I’ve made so many mistakes in my life. If you don’t make mistakes you’re not going to learn. But you’ve got to be willing to learn from your mistakes and not take it as a criticism or a failure. Because without them you’re not going to learn and you’re not going to grow. There’s always ways to do things better. Just don’t give up and don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it. There are always ways to do it. Start working on a ranch that you idolize or think that you like what they’re doing. Or just go out and work as many as you can to see what resonates with you. Find the right person, the right operation that resonates with your passion and your drive, and you can’t lose! I’ve had so many people tell me when I was younger that ‘you’re a woman and this and that’ but it never stopped me because I’m living my dream and it’s taken a long time but it’s a great journey and I’ll do it until the day I die!”

“Of course, I’m a proponent of HM and regeneration but there’s nothing wrong with any of the other ones. . . I don’t care if you practice Holistic Management, traditional grazing, rotational grazing, mob grazing, whatever, it all works, it can all work. But it always comes down to management. The beautiful thing about HM is there’s room for you to be innovative and creative. Don’t ever stop being innovative and creative! That’s how all of this works. Finding what works on everybody’s land is different. Everybody’s ideas are different. Besides making mistakes, read the books, get out there, experience different operations, and get as much information as you can.”

One more piece of advice Mimi had to offer was about selling carbon credits. “That’s another way for young people to make some money if they are in the business. If they’re managing right, they can sell carbon credits and it’s a nice way to be rewarded monetarily for it. I am working right now with a group and we’re in the process of trying to get the past five years since that study to get pioneered in and get paid for those five years, too. It’s really up and coming and it’s another way to bring in some income just for managing the land correctly. It can pay off more than just pounds per acre.”

The most important thing?

“Don’t give up! And follow your dream because if you are passionate about your dream anything is possible.”